The Power of Phantoms

This article concerns anyone who is into being more sustainable, solar powered, or just generally more energy efficient…

We remember those awesome appliances that didn’t hide anything.  They did what you expected them to do  Toaster Lady (once you got over the excitement of the fact that they actually *did* those things).  And they didn’t have any “sensing” abilities or black boxes. Ever wonder about those little black boxes that are attached to our power cords and what our appliances are “sensing” about us?

Phantom Dr_CaligariStandby power, also called phantom load, vampire power, vampire draw, or leaking electricity, refers to the electric power consumed by electronic appliances while they are switched off or in a standby mode.  

Any device that includes a remote or a little black transformer box is always on.  Home theater systems and other remote control “sensing” equipment draws on electricity 24 hours/day, 7 days/week.  These sensing devices are always on, watching…waiting…literally searching…for a signal, a sign of life from the couch.  Phantom load, as this is referred to, is approaching 15% of the electrical usage in the U.S.  Imagine all of the fossil fuels needed to run stuff we don’t even think about or know is turned on!  In Missouri, coal supplies most of the energy, then nuclear and hydro.  Many new products have phantom loads, products which may be inventive but are unnecessary, such as light-up picture frames.

The wasted standby power of individual household electronic devices is typically very small, but the sum of all such devices within the household becomes significant. Standby power makes up a portion of homes’ miscellaneous electric load, which also includes small appliances, security systems, and other small power draws.

Fix Those Phantoms!

One way to get around the phantom load issue is to plug equipment into $3 power strips, U.S. power stripand you can turn off the switch for the 2/3 of the day the equipment is not in use.  Also, cell phone chargers, camera chargers – anything with the little black transformer box on it – uses power when left plugged into the outlet.  These chargers also work well on a power strip.  We like to use the kind of strip that has a little red light.  It is much easier to see if it’s been left on.  Another option is to have an electrician wire your miscellaneous electronic devices to wall switches.

A Small Change in Habits…

Standby power can be as high as 10 to 15 watts per device, and occasionally more. A 2005 study estimates the number of standby appliances in the EU at 3.7 billion.  Although the power needed for functions like displays, indicators, and remote control functions is relatively small, the fact that the devices are continuously plugged in, and the number of such devices in the average household means that the energy usage can reach up to 22 percent of all appliance consumption, and around 10 percent of total residential consumption.  It’s up to each of us to make a difference, so turn off those phantoms!

 For something a little more technical…

Research on Phantoms

Alan Meier, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, noted that many household appliances are never fully switched off, but spend most of the time in a standby mode. His 1998 study estimated that standby power consumption accounted for approximately 5% of total residential electricity consumption in America, “adding up to more than $3 billion in annual energy costs” (this is calculated at current 2010 cheap electricity rate per kW/hr).  According to America’s Department of Energy, national residential electricity consumption in 2004 was 1.29 billion megawatt hours (MWh)—5% of which is 64 million MWh. The wasted energy, in other words, is equivalent to the output of 18 typical power stations!  Meier’s 2000 study (2 years later) showed that standby power accounted for around 10% of household power-consumption, twice as much as he estimated 2 years prior.

On a personal note, we are fairly frugal with our energy usage and have absolutely no phantom load, except for the occasional “I forgot to turn off the power strip last night!”.  Being aware of what appliances are running or being used and when really gets you involved with your energy usage.  It’s a good feeling, this Awareness.  🙂

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